Battle Lines In The Sand

Dennis goes deep into enemy territory

When we were growing up, I would hear stories from the Elders about the tribal wars between Dene and Inuvialuit. One story I remember is how Inuvialuit from Herschel Island would kayak a hundred miles up the Mackenzie River, under cover of the September darkness, to the Thunder River, or Vihtr’iishik, to look for flint. They would grab what flint they could find, then try to make it back to the coast without getting killed. I was in Fort Good Hope, one time, and I asked my friend Ronald Pierrot about that story. He said “Oh yeah, we used to use your people’s skulls for piss pot.” A worried look came across my face. Ronald continued, “Don’t worry, we got honey bucket now.” Then he burst out laughing and slapped me on the back. “I’m just kidding,” he said, “We’re past those days.” If you know Ronald, you gotta watch when he says “I’m just kidding.”
Another story I heard was how Inuvialuit would sneak into the Mackenzie River Delta, right after the spring floods. The delta was, at that time, controlled by the Gwich’in people. The Inuvialuit were looking for uprooted trees to use for constructing the kayak bow and stern. Former Fort McPherson Chief James Ross told me one time, “We used to hang you guys by the toenails when we caught you in our country.” If you know James, he’s got a poker face and he’s a tough guy to read. Those stories still ring in my head, from time to time.
I was invited a few years ago by the people of Tulita, a Dene community along the Mackenzie River, to produce a video documentary about the construction of a traditional moose-skin boat. My Inuvialuit friend and mentor, Louie Goose, remarked about how some Dene Elders still hold grudges against Inuit for past atrocities. “Watch yourself,” he warned me. I landed in Tulita with some trepidation.
We were loaded into jet boats and travelled 60 miles up the Keele River, deep into the Mackenzie Mountains. A sponsoring partner for the trip was Husky Oil and their community liaison officer, and fellow Inuvialuit, O.D. Hansen was along for the trip. O.D. didn’t help matters when he pulled me aside and said jokingly, “You realize we’re the only Inuvialuit here, don’t you?” I managed a weak smile and didn’t know whether to take him seriously or not. O.D. was older than me, and in our culture, it is custom to tease anyone younger than you.
We found a good spot with lots of firewood and people got busy setting up camp. I set up my eight- by 10-foot canvas tent and built myself a makeshift work station with a piece of plywood I scrounged, and some driftwood and twine. There was an old-timer named Jonas Peter, originally from Mayo, Yukon, who kept walking past my tent and peering in to see what I was up to. His nickname was Lalu and he seemed to be a bit of a joker. But, to me, he kept a bit of an edge. That night, after supper, Lalu asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Inuvik. He asked me if I was Eskimo, a word still used by old-timers. I told him I was and he got quiet. He said something to his friend in their language and said the word “eh-rah-ki.” I whispered to my friend and former Dene CBC host Paul Andrew, “What does that mean?”

He whispered back, “Enemy.” I couldn’t tell if that was a smirk on Paul’s face or just the way the sun was bouncing off his eyes. At any rate, I stayed up till the camp was quiet and then I drifted off to sleep.
I fell into a deep sleep and was dreaming that I was in a kayak and paddling for my life, with Ronald Pierrot, Lalu and James Ross circling me in Paul Andrew’s jet boat. Lalu was swinging a war club around his head and yipping as they closed in on me. Just as Lalu was going to nail me in the head, someone opened my tent flap. I shot up and there was a dark figure standing over me. I grabbed my rubber boot and was ready to fight for my life.

“Hey, quit snoring, we can’t sleep.” It was Lalu. “What you’re holding your boot for?” he asked me. I looked at my boot, then at Lalu, and put it down. “I thought you were a bear. Jesus Christ! Quit snoring. We can’t sleep,” he said, then walked away. Oddly enough, he never mentioned it to anyone in camp. And I hadn’t bothered to tell anyone either. So it was left unsaid that whole trip.
Years later, I ran into Lalu in Norman Wells. I was touring my film Crazywater and ran into him at the community feast. He was getting on in age and it seemed he’d forgotten me. I tried to tell him who I was and where we’d met. “Dennis. I met you at Keele River. Making Moose-skin boat.” He stared at me blankly. “Eskimo,” I told him.

A smile came across his face. “Eskimo?”

“Yeah, Eskimo.”

He jabbed another Elder in the ribs and pointed at me and started telling him a story in their language. I heard “eh-rah-ki’” and I knew he was telling him the story. Lalu passed on to the happy hunting grounds, a couple of years ago. I was going through some old photos on my computer and found these photos of that trip, which reminded me of this story. Besides me and Lalu, you’re the only other person who knows this.

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